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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How To Sound Like a Political Insider

Now that we’re down to the lick-log of this election cycle–or at least getting close to the point where the lawyers take over–politics will briefly outrank last night’s reality shows as a topic of conversation in many American households. If the World Series ends tonight, it could happen right away.
As a public service, I thought I would offer non-political-junkie readers a quick and easy lesson in how to sound like a political insider down at Applebee’s this weekend. It’s all a matter of mastering ten magic phrases that will clearly mark you as a guy or gal who knows the inner workings–the viscera and the cartilege–of the Body Politic. Here we go:
1. Early Exits. This does not refer to the behavior of election-night celebrants at a losing candidate’s party, but rather, to the first round of exit polling done by a media consortium to guide network “calls” of various races, and later, as the central data source for the massive spin and finger-pointing campaign that will occur once somebody has won or lost. These “exits” are supposed to be a deep, dark secret prior to the polls being closed, so naturally, every single soul in Washington knows about them by mid-afternoon on election day. That’s why 2002, when the whole exit polling system crashed, was such a nightmare for political insiders. So: get ready to email the following to your coworkers, friends and families during your lunch break on November 2: “Early exits show dead heat.”
2. Gross Ratings Points. A highly technical measurement for the number of viewers likely to see a political ad. For greatest effect, abbreviate this to “points,” as in: “Our team just dumped 3,000 points on Minneapolis-St. Paul. Those poor bastards up there will be mouthing our message in their sleep.”
3. MoE. Short for “margin of error” in a poll. Right now, you could say that “Kerry and Bush are inside the MoE in nine of eleven battleground states,” which is a cool way of saying, “I don’t know what the hell’s going to happen.”
4. D-Trip. No, this is not a rapper’s name, but an abbreviation for the “D-Triple-C,” or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political action arm of the House Democrats. Nothing will send a frisson of admiration and envy through every political insider wannabee quite like your knowledge that “The D-Trip pulled out of Colorado 8 when it learned its guy hadn’t paid property taxes in 20 years.”
5. 527s. Derived from a section number in the Internal Revenue Code, this refers to “independent” organizations running advocacy ads or registering and turning out voters. They cannot endorse a candidate, but can demonize an opponent. They are a very big deal in this election cycle. So: be sure in your pre-election pontification to say at some point: “It’s our 527s versus theirs, and they missed the boat by investing so little in GOTV (Get Out the Vote).”
6. POTUS. An insider term for President of the United States. Variations are FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States, the institution responsible for the election of the current POTUS). Using POTUS indicates that you have worked in, or know people who worked in, the White House. This very day, you could say: “Looks like Arnold’s finally agreed to do a POTUS trip to Ohio.”
7. I-4 Corridor. I-4 is the interstate highway that connects the key Florida electoral battlegrounds of Orlando and Tampa-St. Pete. Ever since 2000, it has been considered the height of political insider wisdom to suggest that the next election will be “all about the I-4 Corridor.” Alternatives include: “It’s all about Lackawanna County” (a northeast Pennsylvania swing area) or, to sound more sophisticated, “It’s all about Bush topping 60 in the Cincinnati exurbs.”
8. Message Discipline. This describes the ability of a candidate to stay “on message,” i.e., to robotically pivot any question, discussion, or speech towards a recitation of whatever pithy and meaningful pitch the campaign has decided voters must be forced to remember, at all costs. Despite their vast differences in style and substance, George W. Bush (the current POTUS) and John Edwards (a potential future POTUS) are both considered excellent practitioners of message discipline. But like any virtue, this can become a vice if pursued to extremes. A good example was the last presidential debate, when the president was asked about the minimum wage, and started warbling about education reform. Message discipline can quickly morph into message bondage.
9. Down-Ballot. A slighting reference to those candidacies of lower status than the one you are concerned about. Given the executive-o-centric nature of the current American imperium, the term is often used to express indifference to Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative outcomes. “If we win the White House, I go to bed happy, and to hell with what happens down-ballot,” would be a good Election Eve line.
10. Decision Desk. This is not a piece of furniture, but a term used for the small group of expert number crunchers employed by television networks to instruct the earpieces of On-Camera Talent that they should immediately race the competition to announce the winner of this or that state, in this or that contest. The black arts of Decision Desk ops became briefly visible, of course, in 2000, when on every network they called, and then recalled twice, a decision on Florida’s electoral votes. Here’s a safe insider comment to make: “I know a guy who’s on the ABC Decision Desk, and he’s sweating bullets about what they do if Kerry’s up five in the Florida exits at 7:00; the polls in the Panhandle, you know, don’t close til 8:00. Do they make the call and get unholy hell from Republicans, or let NBC beat ’em to the punch? It’s like Chariots of Fire, man!”
Properly equipped, may ye go forth to Applebee’s and wow the crowds this weekend. And BTW, if and when this election is finally decided, NewDonkey will offer another installment in this series: the ten magic phrases that will establish you as a Washington Insider, in case you move to the Emerald City in search of fame and fortune.

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